Hackers, Problem Solving and Innovation

From Hacker Innovation: Redefinition and Examination of Outlaw Sources of Generativity for Future Product Development Strategies (2014) by Mike Pinder
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Hackers and innovation

Hackers essentially understand and identify problems in need of solutions and set about finding ways to solve them. Improving artefact configuration states by carrying out rapid incremental trial and error iterations until an improved state is achieved. The hacker mind-set does not only apply to software code, but also hardware and physical technologies. Hackers provide the truly free foundations for collaborative ideation and innovation to take place mediated by digital technologies and combining ideas through rapid problem solving iterations (free from property ownership conflicts by simply disregarding them), to enable unrestricted collaborative design and problem solving. Hacker groups work similarly to firms by isolating a problem or unmet need with an existing artefact, product or service, followed by collaborative ideation, selection, refinement, sharing and wider diffusion back into the commons for yet further iterations.

Hackers are self-motivated without the need for authority figures to approve project initiation, deploy additional resources or even provide funding. They act with passion and genuine interest so that work does not feel like a chore but rather, a hobbyist act. Hacker work can be regarded as similar to the notion of finding a perfect job; work that you would willingly undertake, even if not paid to do so. It is said that if you are lucky enough to consider work in this way, you have found your passion in life and should, in theory at least, be a content individual repeatedly found in a state of flow [Csikszentmihalyi, 1990] [Csikszentmihalyi, 1997]. These emotions can also be applied to hacker work, where passionate interests create complete absorption, concentration, engagement and fulfilment in the activity experience, triggered by intrinsic motivations. For hackers, the thrill of pushing beyond known technological limits, sharpening and developing skills and exercising intelligence are the drivers for undertaking a hack in the first place. Barriers to hacking via institutional frameworks, IP regimes and closed source code are obstacles to overcome (in many cases simply ignored) as they only prevent a good solution from being found. They force people to make non-innovative compromises in the pursuit of a more ideal solution to a problem elsewhere or by other means.

Hacking forms free association of entities that might not otherwise be considered by firms. As already discussed, consulting firms like IDEO use hackerfests in order to facilitate free and divergent creative thinking by not pre- judging ideas, being open enough to play, share ideas and to solve new problems in new ways, much in the same way brainstorming and mind-mapping is used to solve problems by gathering spontaneous ideas from group thinking sessions.

Hierarchical structures and bureaucracy within authoritarian incumbents leverage value from censorship and secrecy by generating asset scarcity. Such structures tend to instinctively distrust forms of voluntary cooperation and information sharing as they cannot be regulated, restricted and controlled. As seen with the reaction of the business world to Open Source, where cooperation is only really trusted when initiated and under firm control under strict licensing agreements. Hackers and hacker communities operate vastly different ways to traditional firms and present real challenges for both organisational forms to find reciprocal relationships of mutual benefit, if possible at all.

Hacking can be viewed as a methodology to open up free and unrestricted, solution based thinking to foster new combinations of creativity and to allow problems to be solved in new and intriguing ways. Design thinking works in similar ways as a divergent thinking methodology and process for combining empathy, creativity and rationality to analyse and find solutions to problems [Brown, 2008]. Hackers in effect, extend the notion of divergent thinking to an extreme (devoid of aforementioned private ownership restrictions designed for inter-firm rivalries), by operating outside the creative constraints imposed by institutional law in the pursuit and discovery of better solutions to technological problems; an unrestricted mode of thinking, limited only by ones ability or imagination, unrestricted and independent of institutional legal frameworks.

Like designers, hackers are boundless unrestricted seers and seekers of value in the space of potential design parameters (whether locked out or freely available), particularly within interchangeable modular systems and frameworks. Consumer electronic products inherently built upon modular systems design are akin to Lego bricks for children. For instance Lego chooses not ship its designs in pre-assembled form with bricks individually, permanently glued together so that end-user children cannot reconfigure them as they see fit or creatively desire. Lego bricks are sold on the assumption that a multitude of unrealised design configuration options are easily available and accessible to children freely seeing and seeking out new value configurations, in addition to the few design variants kits are shipped with. Children are presented with a stimulating creative challenge that brings intrinsic joy through the exploration of alternative modular design configurations made possible by the systems clean interface design.

If a hacker were given a pre-assembled modular Lego kit, glued together to prevent other configurations being made, then the hacker’s primary task in the first instance would be to develop a glue-dissolving compound, tool or other method to remove the permanent bonding in between the bricks so that they could be taken apart and reconfigured as they saw fit. The compound would then be shared in the commons among other like-minded hackers to enable many more persons to freely see and seek alternative, perhaps higher forms of value through the reconfiguring and discovery of modular design structures (that were previously locked away in the closed system) to their heart’s content.

Many products today are sold to consumers in this glued together closed systems state within vertically integrated modular software and hardware platforms that lock out any further forms of innovation from occurring once it leaves the manufacturing base. Being closed and modular locks out potential design configuration options from all but the original creators. The hackers role is to open back up modular platforms and allow operator control (or root access) that moves configuration option control away from original designers, firms and copyright holders, who seek the regulation and control of value extraction via the marketplace, towards hacker communities themselves. Put in place to create coherent and consistent user experiences, tightly coupled closed module software and hardware interfaces make them averse to further modification by innovators, lead users, extreme users and similarly labelled hackers. Firms rely on the economic benefits of modularity to construct closed artefacts based on economies of scale, sold at above cost to consumers and when hackers challenge this control, they are immediately seen as a threat upon the organisational horizon.

Hacker ethics in closed, end-to-end integrated systems are sacrificed by firms in order to maintain control of the entire experience by resisting the empowerment of the user who must tear down walled gardens, established to best return shareholder value to investors. These systems are also closed to the technical and social infrastructures that accompany them by refusing access to distributed teams of hacker innovators, making it the hacker’s task to search for hidden doors through these secret walled gardens and obtaining access to them, in order to see what lies hidden away to be modified, altered, destroyed or improved upon.

New knowledge about module design configurations accumulates within hacker innovation communities, as more and more configurations are concurrently tested and evaluated by fixing and solving problems through iterative problem solving processes. The result is a decentralised module testing, evaluating and solving environment enabled by ICT technologies to coordinate effort.

Hacker-innovators (tentatively, hackovators) represent the hybrid, fourth generation hackers, comprising of both Enthusiast Programmer and Computer Hobbyist types, working in collaborative, distributed, self-organising and governing communities (similar to those in found in Free Software and Open Source communities), enabled by distributed ICT technologies using digital tools and devices to generate, spread and share knowledge on different design parameter module configurations found within open and closed consumer artefacts.

Hackers and ideation

Hackers operate within distributed digital innovation technologies that are fundamentally designed to nurture, combine and spread ideas as bricolage in the adjacent possible [Johnson, 2010]. The adjacent possible being the gradual probing of incremental design configuration possibilities within the near confines of an existing artefact state, rather than revolutionary, radical innovation leaps like those made by market leading firms. Even within such firms, great market dominating innovations are built upon existing technologies, perhaps combined in new ways whilst using design strategically in superior ways. For instance the iPod, iPhone and iPad were all based on existing technologies available to everyone at the time. The key difference being design thinking and sophisticated marketing strategies. There is no doubt the devices can do extraordinary things, but they are based on available technologies within the adjacent possible. In this regard hackers are also unrestricted seers and seekers at the edges of what is possible with an existing device by freely pushing the adjacent boundaries of technological capabilities. In the process they find novel ways of recombining parts as they see fit whilst simultaneously breaking through environments that block or limit new combinations designed to punish experimentation or by making manufacturer artefact states so satisfying to consumers that they have no desire to explore the near edges of new possible and improved states.

Hacker innovators approach innovation much in the same way as NASA engineers did during the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission where carbon dioxide air filters had failed and oxygen levels were gradually decreasing. A Tiger Team was quickly formed to evaluate the situation and hack together a workable solution based on the available components inside the space capsule. Parts were re- assembled in new ways from other spare parts in order to get more physical parts and design configuration options in order to unrestrictedly achieve the desired end to save lives. Hackers do much in the same way by making new unrestricted connections and collisions with many other elements comprised in a given system. They form a densely interconnected environment, constantly exploring new configurations and preserving optimal designs along the way; generating a vast source of unrestricted information spillover. A cornerstone assumption is that innovation increases if you restrict the flow and use of new ideas through patent, copyright, DRM and proprietary systems, because those restrictions permit inventors to appropriate rents from their efforts in order to develop yet further innovations in the future. This arrangement in theory prevents all knowledge spillovers from external sources occurring and severely restricts the number of minds legally permitted and engaged in contributing to further improvements.

There is an emergent effect caused by hackers building upon existing ideas, making improvements and innovations along the way. If firms can construct the right kind of platform, hackers can operate as complimentary systems engineers allowing for far greater leaps of exploration into what is potentially possible and as yet unrealised in the plethora of adjacent configuration possibilities for firms. Ideas and information are free to spillover and connect with other ideas, magnified by its transmission and flow at zero cost through digital network technologies and the Internet. Within these collaborative hacker innovation community’s, cooperative advantage, replaces competitive advantage. A big question emerges in light of ideas and innovation generated outside of traditional competitive markets: how can organisations (public, private and government) better harness hacker innovation generated within unrestricted, decentralised, non-market, networked environments?

Hackers and design evolution

Collaborative hacker innovation communities open up the design structures of artefacts locked away within consumer products in a search of higher value, ex poste. The human ability to seek higher forms of value is what drives and causes design as a whole to evolve –by improving artefacts and making them more complex, feature rich and capable of executing and achieving tasks; as well as driving the continued growth of economies. In seeking higher forms of value, there is expectation of gain, not blind chance as in natural design evolution. Hacker innovators try new design configurations because they believe they will gain some value advantage from the new artefact state over the old. Hackers undertake design modifications, consuming personal resources and effort along the way (time, energy and money) simply for the pleasure of the activity itself. These factors combined make for a highly motivated value seeking and enabling design evolution to occur.

Hackers operate in complex adaptive systems where modular design parameters and operators (opportunities to play and innovate) are constantly being modified, giving rise to further modifications and combinations of other elements. Firms attempting to lock out other modular design configurations do so to the very system that enabled its modular design in the first place. It is counter productive in a pure value creation sense to simply ignore and disregard further forms of value creation being made just because they originate outside firm walls. Such market driven value creation could hold valuable future design trajectory or market driven design evolution data for firms involved, not necessarily for new radical innovations, but for those involved in incremental and sustaining innovation strategies within established markets [Katz and Allen, 1982] [Dewar and Dutton, 1986] [Cohen and Levinthal, 1990].

NEXT: Chapter 4.2 - Hacker Innovation Cycles

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